Erica’s Pick of the Week: Termination Shock

Climate fiction — stories dealing with the repercussions of climate change — has been increasingly popular in recent years. From award-winning literary fiction to young adult thrillers, the fallout from global warming and changing weather patterns has given authors plenty to work with. Naturally, science fiction is a natural fit for these types of books, and Neal Stephenson’s latest, Termination Shock, is a prescient, inventive addition — a globe hopping adventure that starts with feral hogs and only gets wilder from there, perfect for fans of Charles Stross, William Gibson, or who like their sci-fi heavy on the science.

When the Queen of the Netherlands visits a Texas squillionaire with an audacious plan to geo-engineer a solution to global warming, it sets off a cascade of events that brings together a cast of unlikely characters — the Queen, her senior advisor, the Squillionaire, a hog-hunter, a Chinese spy, Venetian semi-nobility, and a Canadian Sikh with a knack for stick fighting. More importantly, it asks the question: How can we be sure the solution to a crisis is worth the cost? And who gets to decide?

Neal Stephenson is known for writing immersive worlds rooted in cutting-edge technology, and Termination Shock is no exception. Set in a near-future world wracked by climate disasters, pandemics, and global instability, it’s an all-too-plausible scenario. Fortunately, It’s also filled with technology that is (barely) holding off the worst of the disasters: multifunctional drones, smartphone-based contact tracing, climate-controlled clothing, among other inventions. Even the squillionaire’s geo-engineering technology is not wildly far-fetched or complicated.  It’s not the most reassuring future one can imagine, but it is incredibly compelling.

Stephenson’s trademark curiosity and dry wit are on full display. I had not anticipated learning about deepfakes, falconry, the Line of Actual Control, or ovine genetics, but I did, and often found myself snort-laughing about it. The various narrators are distinctive, but they share a sly, world-weary humor well suited to their crisis-ridden lives, and watching the disparate threads of their stories come together for the grand finale is a treat that had me turning the pages faster and faster.

For all of the world building and technology, however, the book isn’t really about geo-engineering  — it’s about the fallout. It’s about ripple effects and power struggles and the calculus of self-preservation in an interconnected world. And in the end, it’s a surprisingly hopeful look at a situation that so often feels hopeless. Human ingenuity can save us, Termination Shock tells us — if we don’t forget the human part.

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